Home » North Korea Mass Games: the view from my stadium seat

North Korea Mass Games: the view from my stadium seat

by Victor Eekhof
North Korea Mass Games

“We might have witnessed the last North Korea Mass Games in history”, my buddy Joe tells me. We’re in a cafe in rainy Amsterdam catching up. I met Joe on a tour to Pyongyang (North Korea’s capital) and we both left the tour more puzzled that we already were. Although the whole tour was only a day and a half, we felt like we got an inside look into a city unlike any other in the world. And the icing on the cake was a visit to the North Korea Mass Games, also called the Arirang Festival.

Throughout the day there were several updates: yes, you’re going to see the North Korea Mass Games, no, you’re not going to see the North Korea Mass Games. Luckily for us, this gamble ended well. We were able to see the Mass Games!

Visiting Pyongyang, capital of North Korea

Our group of 11 had a full-size coach to ourselves, and we were being driven around the city to visit its sights. Apart from the “regular” stops at the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the Mass Games (or Arirang Festival) were on the top of our mind. We already had a 20-hour delay on the way to Pyongyang due to the lack of electricity to keep the train running, so we had exactly one full day to see it all. And we definitely wanted to see it all, our group was full of seasoned travellers who weren’t going to take no for an answer. Luckily our tour guide (the non-Korean one) had the same attitude, and practically overruled the North Korean tour guide on a few occasions. This went as follows: “I’m afraid we can’t make it out to attraction X today”. “Yes we can”. “Ok, I’ll see what I can do”. And then we would see the attraction.

I’m well aware that there is plenty wrong with the Mass Games, but this article is not meant to give an opinion about this. I simply want to show you photos and videos of the 2013 Mass Games I visited. It was an amazing spectacle and it would be selfish not to share it.

The North Korea Mass Games gamble

A similar thing happened to visit the famous Arirang festival. On the day of arrival, our group gathered at the Dandong (China) train station. We went through the program to which our tour leader added a note: we might not be able to see the Mass Games. Many of us were disappointed, but the word “might” gave us some hope. In the next day, a rollercoaster of Mass Game-related emotions took place. Throughout the day there were several updates: yes, you’re going to see the Mass Games, no, you’re not going to see the Mass Games. Luckily for us, this gamble ended well. We were able to see the Mass Games!

Will there be a North Korea Mass Games in 2018?

As far as I know, there hasn’t been any Mass Games since 2013. On the Wikipedia page of the Arirang Festival it is said that the 2014, 2015 and 2016 Mass Games have been cancelled, but contrary to popular belief, the games were actually held in 2015. Koryo Tours recently reported that the games will be held again in 2018.

The flip-side of the Mass Games

I’m well aware that there is plenty wrong with the Mass Games, but this article is not meant to give an opinion about this. I simply want to show you photos and videos of the 2013 Mass Games I visited. It was an amazing spectacle and it would be selfish not to share it. The Mass Games I visited were held in honour of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice.

We will start this photo series with the official Arirang song, that every North Korean resident has memorized.

Mass game ticket

The desirable tickets to the (assumed to be last) Mass Games. I was going to be in third class, but this was a great distance to have a good overview of the whole spectacle. A ticket was €80 at the time, going up to €300 for first class tickets.

North Korean kids practice their moves outside the stadium, just before the big show.


The entrance of the stadium, with traditionally dressed hostesses

Traditionally dressed door hostesses check the tickets when we enter the massive Rungrado 1st of May stadium.

An astounding “living screen” composed of more than 30.000 students provides for the backdrop of the 90-minute performance. In this video, the children practice flipping their 170-page book with different colours, each representing a “pixel” that makes up an image picturing the theme of the show.

May Day stadium visitors

Most of the visitors to the Arirang Festival are (highly ranked) officers and of course us, the tourists. The stadium was about 25% full.

Note from Young Pioneer Tours: the main reason they would only fill a certain section of the stadium is that the performance is designed to be viewed from the front angle. Imagine watching it from too far to the side, it would look terrible especially with the backdrop, and when you consider it’s a propaganda exercise as opposed to a musical show or a profit-making enterprise, they just don’t want it to be seen unless it’s seen right. Also, because they would hold the games for 2 and a half months with performances 3 days a week, generally there was never an excess of demand!

Mass games North Korean military

A few themes are recurring throughout the performance. Of course the North Korean military plays a big part.

North Korean pig performance

Other themes are a bit less serious, and are simply there to entertain.

Mass Games kids gymnastics

Mostly I was dazzled by the amount of people moving in sync. In total, about 100.000 North Koreans perform in the 90-minute show, which earns it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest event of its kind.

Mass Games kids

Zooming in a bit more, you can see a few of the kids’ faces and outfits.

Mass Games kids color book

Here you see a zoomed-in picture of the “living backdrop”, with the childrens’ heads popping out just above the large book of colors they are holding.

Another practice round before the show, where they train their ability to provide seamless picture transitions for the audience. You have to keep in mind that these are 30.000 kids all doing the same thing at the same time.

Mass Games family background

The backdrops throughout the Mass Games are colorful and themed to match the performances. In this picture you see the all-important role the family plays in the North Korean culture. The strong women leads the way, holding her child close. The elder family member is not far behind however, and with a determined look in their eyes the continue their journey forward.

Mass Games background technology

Another theme is technology. The North Korean government wants to show the world (or at least the North Korean residents) how advanced they are on the technological side. I’m not sure the image of a CD (the photo is from 2013) really helps though..

Mass Games background agriculture

Another important theme is agriculture, as a lot of North Koreans work on the land. An (educated) woman is pictured centrally here, once again showing the emphasis the government puts on North Korean women.

Arirang festival Taekwondo

Sport is a main theme as well. North Koreans practice a wide range of sports, from judo to taekwondo and from hockey to football.

Arirang games Arch of Triumph

The structure pictured here is the Arch of Triumph. No, not the French one, but the North Korean version in Pyongyang. It is 10 meters taller (of course) and commemorates the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945.

Arirang Games weapons

The dominant military theme is visible on the backdrops as well.

Mass games hula hoop gymnastics

This is where the “oooooooh!” starts. Thousands of gymnasts with hula hoops do their tricks in perfect, perfect sync.

The hula hoop gymnasts in action.

Mass Games grand finale

Then, the great finale is building up. The propagandic “Russian-style” choirs intensify and more and more gymnasts and other performers enter the pitch. You can see a inflated globe in the back, being rolled onto the pitch as well.

Mass games flag

Huge flags are being brought into view. Patriotism is of course very strong here.

Mass games leaders

Without a doubt, the leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il have to be honored as well, in the form of these massive images.

DPRK Workers' Party symbol

This is the symbol of the Workers’ Party of Korea. It is an adaptation of the Russian iconic communist hammer and sickle, but with an added calligraphic brush in the middle, symbolizing the “workers’ intellectual

Arirang festival grand finale

The build-up to the grand finale.

Mass games finale

The grand finale

There we have it, the grand finale. A grand display of fireworks can be seen through the open roof of the stadium, the Russian choirs are at it’s most intense and the inflated globe has entered the stage. Note that the red dot on the globe symbolized “Korea”, making no difference between North and South Korea. This was, by far, the greatest show I have ever seen. It was strange to see that only a quarter of the stadium was filled with locals, mostly in military outfits. A show like this needs a greater audience in my opinion, but then again, would we be able to motivate (in any way) 30.000 children to sit still and flip a coloured book every few minutes for more than 1.5 hours?

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Hey friend,
Would you say that there was and discernible advantage for buying the more expensive ‘first class’or VIP tickets?
We will be there in a few weeks and are wondering how much cash to throw at the event?

Aram Pan

I’ve got the permit and recorded the full video of the last mass games. Here it is: https://youtu.be/vNHkWc89Hp4


Impressive! Fascinating country with many things that you can only REALLY believe when you see it I think. I can’t believe these people are living like this and are probably practising for hours and hours every single week.

Angie Taylor

I am so hoping the Mass Games are back on again this year as I will be in NK in September. I can only imagine how emotional it will be to just be there and experience it!


I’ll be there in September too. Will probably run into each other in the hotel all tourists stay in.

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